Don’t flick switches if you don’t know what they do

The first proper piece of career advice I got was from my Father just before I started my first job.

I was 16 years old, and about to start working as a glass-collector in the local golf club where my Father was an active member.

The Bar Steward, Mr Jones, was a notoriously abrasive man, and I think my Father sensed trouble. Mr Jones was hard work, but he wasn’t the only one: I was an awkward argumentative know-all with all the social skills of a wasp at a picnic.

To him, and to most people I suspect, I looked like I was aloof or arrogant, but actually it was more about my lack of self-confidence and my social clumsiness. My personality is the sort that doesn’t do small talk and doesn’t crave human company for the sake of it, and this means it’s all too easy for me to stumble, as a bull may stumble its way through a china shop, when faced with uncomfortable social settings.


My Father’s advice was this:

Let him tell you stuff. Even if you already know it, just let him tell you anyway

Surprisingly I listened and nodded without saying something annoying like “Yes, I already know this and all other things too” which was my usual answer to everything.

I didn’t need that advice that first evening. I shut up and listened anyway because Mr Jones was an intimidating bugger, and I was in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by people who I didn’t know and had decided to dislike the second I met them. I was feeling so weighed down by my chronic lack of self-confidence that I might as well have been wearing an anchor around my neck.

But the advice stuck with me, and has been one of the most useful things I ever learnt.

I also learnt not to flick switches if you don’t know what they do (see the above Venn diagram).

This was made painfully clear to me as I casually flicked the switch on a beer tap, seeking the fun noise the beer made as it spurted out. Unfortunately this tap was preset to empty half a pint of beer into a glass, and so my careless action meant I accidentally emptied half a pint of beer onto the floor.

Mr Jones wasn’t pleased.

That was my first day at work.

Apart from my Father’s attempts to get me to improve my golf swing (bad-tempered shouting that undermined his fruitless attempts to get me interested in the sport), I only remember one other piece of advice from him: he told me to go out with a girl called Sarah because she seemed “nice”.

I was having girlfriend trouble at the time and equivocating over what to do next. I didn’t mind him giving me his opinion (I was glad he was taking an interest!), but these are the sorts of decision you have to take for yourself, and the decision-making process isn’t entirely rational and rarely is it informed by who your parents think is “nice”.

I understood his logic, but didn’t agree with the conclusion, and said as much:
“No, I don’t think that’s right for me …”

I couldn’t say any more because he’d walked away, angrily muttering that I was impossible and never listened.

Maybe so, but in this case he was wrong. I did listen, I just didn’t agree.

So that was another thing I learnt (and I will put my workplace wisdom in bold so it stands out):

If you give advice, give it with grace and good intentions, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re giving orders


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